Introduction

(Contemporary Literary Criticism)

Howard Zinn 1922‐-

American historian, essayist, autobiographer, editor, and playwright.

The following entry presents an overview of Zinn's career through 1999.

Zinn is an outspoken political activist associated with a variety of social justice, peace, and minority rights issues. He has written a number of books on history and political science and is considered an expert on the history of civil disobedience in America. Zinn is known for A People's History of the United States (1980), an alternative account of historical events from the perspective of minorities and members of the working class; the book is often used as a textbook in high schools and universities.

Biographical Information

Zinn was born in New York on August 24, 1922, to Edward Zinn, a waiter, and Jenny Rabinowitz Zinn, a Russian immigrant. He grew up in Brooklyn where he began reading Dickens as a boy of ten. He took a job as a laborer in the Brooklyn Navy Yard and at the age of twenty, joined the army. From 1943 to 1945 he served as a second lieutenant in the Army Air Force as a bombardier, earning an Air Medal and a number of battle stars. In 1944 Zinn married Roslyn Shechter, with whom he had two children, Myla and Jeff. After the war he attended New York University on the G.I. Bill, graduating with a bachelor's degree in 1951. He earned a master's degree in 1952 and a Ph.D. in history from Columbia University in 1958. He has taught at a number of colleges and universities. From 1953 to 1956, while completing his doctorate, he taught at Upsala College in New Jersey and served as visiting lecturer in history at Brooklyn College. In 1956 he took a position as chair of the history and political science department at Spelman College, a school for black women in Atlanta. It was at Spelman that Zinn became involved in the civil rights movement along with many of his students. Despite having tenure, he was fired from his position at Spelman in 1960, and the family moved to Boston where Zinn took a history fellowship at Harvard and wrote two books on his experiences at Spelman. In 1964 he joined the faculty of Boston University as a professor of political science; his classes there were always filled to capacity by students who admired his devotion to such liberal causes as peace and civil rights. He remained at BU until his retirement in 1988, despite the best efforts of the university's neoconservative president, John Silber, to oust him in the 1980s. Zinn has also served as visiting professor at both the University of Paris and the University of Bologna and has won numerous awards including the Beveridge Prize, the Thomas Merton Award, the Eugene V. Debs Award, the Upton Sinclair Award, and the Lannan Literary Award. His best-known work, A People's History of the United States, earned the New England Book Award for nonfiction and was nominated for an American Book Award. Zinn is currently professor emeritus at Boston University and resides in Auburndale, Massachusetts, with his wife.

Major Works

Zinn's first book, awarded the Albert J. Beveridge Prize from the American Historical Association, was based on his doctoral dissertation and published as La Guardia in Congress in 1959. This was followed in 1964 by two contemporary histories, both growing out of his experiences teaching at the predominantly black Spelman College. The first, The Southern Mystique, addresses the black struggle for civil rights in the South and the white resistance to the changes effected by that struggle. The second, SNCC: The New Abolitionists, covered Zinn's experience as faculty advisor to the newly formed Student Non-Violent Coordinating Committee. In 1968, Zinn published Disobedience and Democracy, his response to “Concerning Dissent and Civil Disobedience,” a pamphlet issued by Supreme Court Justice Abe Fortas. Two years later, in an effort to inspire historians “to earn their keep in this world,” Zinn wrote The Politics of History, in which he challenged his fellow historians to document injustices in the American system. In 1973, he published Postwar America: 1945-1971, a work of cultural and political history wherein he attempted to expose inconsistencies in America's most cherished ideological beliefs.

Zinn's most famous work is his alternative history A People's History of the United States, often referred to as history written from the bottom up—that is, from the perspective of Native Americans, slaves, women, immigrants, and members of the working class. Originally published in 1980, the work was revised, updated, and reissued in 1999 as A People's History of the United States: 1492-Present. Zinn's 1994 autobiography, You Can't Be Neutral on a Moving Train: A Personal History of Our Times, concentrates on his involvement in the civil rights and anti-war movements.

In addition to his nonfiction writings, Zinn has written three plays: Emma (1976), based on the life of Emma Goldman; Daughter of Venus (1985), produced at the Theatre for New City in New York; and Marx in Soho (1999), which imaginatively transports Karl Marx from London's Soho district in the nineteenth century to New York's Soho district in the present day.

Critical Reception

Zinn's position as a respected scholar as well as a political activist has given him a unique perspective on many of the events he covers in his books. Martin B. Duberman claims that Zinn's ability to combine theory and practice in his chronicles of the 1960s civil rights movement results in books that “are personal without being egotistical, are authoritative but free of pedantry, are passionate without being suspiciously agitated.” Erwin Knoll (see Further Reading) believes that Zinn's wide-ranging experience—not only as an activist, but also as a blue-collar worker and a World War II bombardier—“contributes to the depth of his perception in Postwar America: 1945-1971.” On the other hand, some critics have suggested that Zinn's involvement in the movements he writes about results in sentimentalism and romanticism. Margaret O'Brien, for example, believes Zinn overvalues SNCC's potential as a force for change: “It would be nice, but SNCC is not going to save the world. By suggesting it could, Zinn places SNCC's true greatness in a possible (but very doubtful) future; and he needn't have.” In his review of Postwar America: 1945-1971, Peter Michelson echoes that criticism, claiming that “the book suffers finally from political romanticism, the sort of wishful thinking that reveals the frustrating dilemma of American radicalism.” Similarly Simon Lazarus, who believes that Zinn romanticizes “the virtues of confrontation for its own sake,” questions the effectiveness of civil disobedience whose main purpose is to insult or offend majority values—a strategy he claims Zinn encourages in Disobedience and Democracy. In his review of Justice in Everyday Life: The Way It Really Works, Terry M. Perlin (see Further Reading) contends that the book “suffers from considerable naiveté,” and concludes that it is “a utopian tract, suffering from all the beauties and dangers of that format.” Some critics, however, see that naiveté in a more positive light. Harvey Wasserman, for example, refers to Zinn's “characteristic innocence” in his review of The Zinn Reader, claiming that although Zinn's book does not necessarily provide all the answers, it is “a healing read” that will make readers “feel restored, even hopeful.”

Although Zinn's books have been popular—particularly among young college students eager to hear an alternative to the sanitized versions of history taught in many high schools—they have not been favorably reviewed by most scholars. His most famous book, A People's History of the United States, is often dismissed as a fairly unsophisticated record of relentless exploitation of the downtrodden. Luther Spoehr [see Further Reading], for example, claims that Zinn's book “has no notion of process or complexity, no sense of how the terms of argument and weapons of battle have changed over time.” Michael Kammen finds that A People's History is “a synthesis of the radical and revisionist historiography of the past decade, incorporating many of the strengths and most of the weaknesses of that highly uneven body of literature.” Bruce Kuklick, meanwhile, considers the book a radical textbook and asserts that, as such, “its comprehension of issues is stunted; its understanding of materials is unnuanced,” just as they are in most textbooks. Still, the work has gone through numerous printings, was revised and reissued in a twentieth-anniversary edition in 1999, and continues to appear in a large number of high school and college classrooms. Mariel Garza accounts for the book's phenomenal sales figures by suggesting that “A People's History is a great example of product differentiation, entering underserved markets, and giving people what they want.”